By Ben Quilty on Facebook
I travelled to the Middle East in 2016 with author, Richard Flanagan, invited by World Vision to tour the refugee Camps and witness the movement of refugees out of Syria and Afghanistan towards Germany. On The Greek island of Lesvos Richard and I found a deserted beach that was thick with discarded refugee life jackets. They marked the high tide mark of the beautiful island in a meter deep twisted orange mass of vests. Amongst them I found one little vest, made for a child similar age to my own little girl. It was too much. I cracked that day. I packed the tiny vest into my luggage and brought it home with me to my studio in Australia. More than 150,000 refugees made the crossing from the shores of Turkey to the Greek Island of Lesvos in the month of January Richard and I visited. More than 3000 drowned in that same month. I was struck by the failure of the news media in my own country to cover such dramatic and grotesquely tragic events. The vest has stayed in my studio ever since and is the subject of the painting in this exhibition.
This painting I hope will call into question the way in which we treat each other. I hope that the work talks to notions of compassion, but also questions our own role in such mass-homelessness, dispossession of an entire people and the rite to survive. The child who wore this jacket might be safely in Germany but she might also have added to the statistics of carnage on the ocean and her tiny body might still be unclaimed in the frigid waters of the Mediterranean. As a community we violently rile at the mistreatment of so many in past wars, the Second World War most noticeably, but the millions of displaced, mistreated and murdered people over the past six years in Syria remain forgotten in comparison.